Navigating Rough Waters
By: Robert Craft
TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services
The undeniable sting of defeat engulfed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after their 31-23 loss to the Detroit Lions in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
It hung thick in the visitor’s locker room at Ford Field, where players dressed mostly in silence and exchanged hugs with one another and with coaches and other staffers on their way to the buses that would transport them to the airport for a long flight back south.
Moral victories garner nothing in the NFL, so the team members who spoke to the media didn’t hide their disappointment. They had failed in their quest for a Super Bowl victory, a goal they set for themselves back in the dog days of summer.
It was a goal they maintained all year, even amid a bleak 1-6 stretch at midseason, before a hot streak positioned them to finish 9-8 and the NFC South crown. Then they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-9 in the Wild Card round.
Real talk: The Buccaneers had no business playing in the divisional round of the playoffs. Not on paper, and definitely not based on how they looked on the field earlier this season.
Many concluded in the preseason that the Buccaneers caught in the awkward spot of rebuilding while trying to cling to a few pieces from their Super Bowl victory three years ago would be one of the worst teams in the league this year.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield might not have agreed with those preseason projections, but he understood them.
Once the former top-pick-turned-journeyman locked in on Bucs coach Todd Bowles’ vision, he shared the belief that he and his teammates were capable of far exceeding outside expectations.
So, the Buccaneers went to work, began building, overcame deficiencies and growing pains, steadily improved and transformed themselves into one of the NFL’s better teams.
Mayfield, signed to a one-year, $4 million contract in March, embraced the massive challenge of succeeding Tom Brady by turning in a career year (4,044 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 64.3 completion percentage). He served as the poster child for this team’s resolve.
This season, Bowles was the catalyst for Tampa Bay’s success. Bowles was much maligned because of a tenuous four seasons with the Jets and the Buccaneers’ 8-9 drop-off last year, Bowles was believed to be lame duck when Tampa Bay officials began preparing for this season.
Purging the roster of aging stars and their bloated salaries would force younger players into duty; often before they were ready. Bowles doubled down and believed growth and a competitive campaign were possible.
He made the tough call to overhaul his coaching staff, parting with some figures who played key roles in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win. And he entrusted the offense to two discounted figures: Mayfield and offensive coordinator Dave Canales.
Bowles, meanwhile, intensified his efforts as a defensive mastermind. He started his workdays an hour earlier than his first season as head coach and two hours earlier than his days as the defensive coordinator. That meant he was reporting to Bucs headquarters at 3:30 a.m. every day in 2023.
He didn’t, however, change his leadership style, and his stoic and patient approach was exactly what the team needed as it persevered through challenging times.
But players say there are other levels to Bowles’ personality and the way he connects and motivates.
Tampa Bay has 20 pending free agents, including Mayfield, wide receiver Mike Evans and defensive stars Devin White, Lavonte David, Antoine Winfield. But Bowles, who delivered the best coaching job of his career, firmly believes his team can mount another Super Bowl chase next season.
Time will tell.